Wauwatosa protester ‘target list’ trial enters second day

More details emerge about the people Wauwatosa PD was watching after George Floyd protests

By: - May 3, 2023 12:26 pm
Protesters gather to march in Wauwatosa in response to the deaths of Alvin Cole, Jay Anderson Jr., and Antonio Gonzalez. All were killed by the same Wauwatosa officer, Joseph Mensah. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Protesters gather to march in Wauwatosa in response to the deaths of Alvin Cole, Jay Anderson Jr., and Antonio Gonzalez. All were killed by the same Wauwatosa officer, Joseph Mensah in 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

A federal lawsuit against the city of Wauwatosa over  a list of people associated with protests created by the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) entered its second day Tuesday. Capt. Luke Vetter, one of the police department’s highest ranking officers both during the protests took the stand along with  WPD crime analyst Dominick Ratkowski who testified about why and how he created and shared the list with other law enforcement agencies.

Vetter’s questioning started with attorney Jasmyne Baynard, who represents both Ratkowski and WPD Lt. Joseph Roy in the lawsuit. Vetter said that releasing information is always a balancing act, and described the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), which the lawsuit claims he violated, as a “competing interest” with Wisconsin’s  open records law. Vetter said the open records  law makes it difficult to keep information like the records he released confidential. “Wisconsin has a very very strong open records law,” he testified.

 In a 2016 email Wauwatosa police department personnel discussed  using high records costs as a way to keep information from being released. 

In early 2021, the Examiner requested the WPD protester list after its existence became public through released emails. A redacted version of the list was not released until later that summer. In May of that year, the Examiner filed another open records request for emails, which has not yet been fulfilled by WPD. The department hasn’t provided an update on that request since last July.

In his testimony, Vetter discussed  why WPD did not always redact personal information from records  it released. In many police records released by the department in early 2021, names, addresses, and other information commonly found on driver’s licenses were visible. Some of these records also suggested individuals were arrested while protesting when they’d only been cited. “We understand that is personally embarrassing,” Vetter testified.Vetter testified that the list “became a living, breathing document,” which constantly changed. Across the supervisory staff at WPD, there was an interest in identifying people involved in the protests, and an “urge” to “maintain order in the city,” he said. Vetter acknowledged that not every protest or protester were disruptive, although occasional violations did occur during the protests. “I wanted this list to be able to investigate,” Vetter testified. “Concerns for public safety [were] worsening,” he testified, referencing protests at the home of Mayor Dennis McBride where lights and lasers were shined at the house.

Vetter also stated that people had been charged with attempted homicide after an August 2020 incident, in which a gun was fired by a  protester outside the home of former Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah. Mensah’s  three fatal shootings over a five year period drew protesters to Wauwatosa in 2020. Records obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner in 2021 show that WPD  referred the incident to the Milwaukee Police Department and FBI to investigate  an attempted homicide on a police officer.

 Three men were charged in the incident for being involved in the firing or handling of the firearm. They were charged with battery to a law enforcement officer, harboring a felon, party to a crime and second degree reckless endangering safety. Court records show that one of the men, Niles Mckee, had his charges dropped to disorderly conduct. No one was charged with attempted homicide for the incident, and the judge reminded the courtroom that the events outside of Mensah’s home don’t involve any of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, who were protesters in 2020 and 2021. 

“We have to allow people to move about freely during the day,” Vetter testified, explaining that police were trying to  balance the free speech rights of  protesters with the rights of other Wauwatosa residents to go about their business each day. Protests often briefly slowed or blocked traffic as marchers and car caravans made their way through the streets. On any given day, Vetter could muster eight to 10  officers to deal with dozens of protesters who were marching through the streets

On Tuesday the Wauwatosa city attorney’s office also presented a WPD email sent in May 2021 claiming protesters had blocked an ambulance. No video of protesters blocking ambulances has been shown thus far.

How the list was used, and created

Kimberly Motley, the attorney for protesters who claims their rights were violated by the creation and circulation of protester list, questioned Vetter. She asked whether he recalled a complaint filed by Tracy Cole, who lost her son in a WPD police shooting in 2020. The complaint was filed in July 2020 and, Motley stated, the protester list was shared with law enforcement the very same day and again the next day. Vetter said it “wouldn’t be necessary” to look up Department of Transportation  information for people who wrote a complaint about the police. Sharing DOT information is at the heart of the lawsuit’s claim that the police violated the DPPA. Vetter acknowledged that “we should not be violating the DPPA.”

After Vetter came WPD crime analyst Dominick Ratkowski, who originally created the list after being asked by Vetter to start identifying protesters. Ratkowski said these efforts began early in the protests, when he received information about people discussing looting Mayfair Mall from the Milwaukee Police Department’s fusion intelligence unit. Police information gathering  began with monitoring social media, Ratkowski testified. Later, he created fake Facebook and dating profiles to further monitor people he saw in social media videos at protests, or people tagged in posts about protests on social media. Ratkowski was also questioned about why he called the document a “target list” shortly before the Wauwatosa curfew in October 2020. “That was a mischaracterization,” he said.

Ratkowski testified that he wasn’t sure exactly how many people he shared the list with but that it might have been about 34 people. Ratkowski wasn’t sure of each person’s job title, and noted that some were crime analysts — who are not considered sworn law enforcement officers. He stated that people didn’t have to be violent, disruptive, or criminals to be put on the list. 

When asked where his information about particular protestes came from, Ratkowski named numerous sources including the Wisconsin court system’s Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP). He suggested that some information also available through the DOT, including  addresses and dates of birth, can also be found on CCAP. However, CCAP only includes people who have been through the court system. A TMJ4 report found that 74.3% of people on the protester list had never been charged with a misdemeanor or felony.

Going through each of the plaintiffs who are on the list, Ratkowski said he didn’t recall if certain people had been arrested or charged, or where certain information he gathered came from. Some people on the list didn’t have social media accounts, raising more  questions about where the information came from. Emails where Ratkowski shared the list with other law enforcement agencies were also examined. In one email, sent to Brian Conte of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, Ratkwoski wrote, “feel free to pass this along to who you think would find it useful.” He shared the list with Conte after protesters marched on the highway. In another email sent to a Burlington police detective, Ratkowski shared the list after protesters attended and disrupted a school board meeting.

In both of these instances Ratkowski acknowledged that he did not know whether the majority of the people on the list were present. When he shared the list, Ratkowski did not tell other law enforcement officers that the information was sensitive or confidential in nature. Ratkowski said he trusted other law enforcement to use the list for their investigations, though he didn’t know how they or even Wauwatosa detectives used the list. Ratkowski described the list in one email as “a list with photos and addresses of the main people who are consistently posting videos, photos, and comments.”

The list included many people who protested but also elected officials, a Wisconsin Examiner journalist, and the plaintiffs’ attorney Motley herself. Ratkowski said he never distinguished whether people on the list were associated with specific events when he shared it. In one case, an officer from the Minneapolis area was also sent the list, discussion in court revealed. Many agencies with which Ratkowski shared the list had not requested the document.

In one email discussed on Tuesday, Ratkowski mentioned identifying people who signed a letter sent to Wauwatosa common council members which denounced the actions of local police. Ratkowski was also instructed by Wauwatosa detective John Milotzky to gather information on people involved in an ad hoc committee the city created to address policing and equity issues. Ratkowski stated that while the DPPA allows information to be gathered for legitimate law enforcement purposes, people on the list also have a right to have their information protected from him.

Testimony Tuesday also included Katie Schuh, deputy director of the crime information bureau in the state Department of Justice. Schuh noted that the DOJ’s databases which centralizes information on individuals was searched for a majority of the plaintiffs from October 2020 onward by law enforcement. Schuh stated that while some driver’s license information could be found in other databases, some would have to specifically come from the DOT.

More plaintiffs in the lawsuit also had the opportunity to share their experiences on Tuesday. John Larry, who was formerly part of the ad hoc committee, said that in 2020 he found a community of people “lifting their voices up” during the protests. “People would meet up at a certain location, there would be snacks provided, boards would be made for signs,” Larry said. “It was a combination of people coming together from all walks of life.” Larry was put on the list at some point after the protests began. He felt he was viewed “as a domestic terrorist” for being put on the list. “It causes more of an alertness or awareness,” said Larry, adding that  he still feels nervous around police. He often wonders, he testified, “Could this be the day when I’m pulled over and not make it home to my family?”

Mary Kachelskl, a high school science teacher and Wauwatosa resident, was also put on the list. Her entry included a picture of her teenage daughter. “It’s not OK,” Kachelskl said, tearing up on the stand as she  looked at her daughter’s picture. Kachelskl was also identified as a member of Tosa Moms Tackling Racism on the list. The group was formed by  local moms who were moved by the killing of Geroge Floyd, who called out for his mother in his final minutes. The group provided water and snacks to protesters and Kachelskl said she mostly marched around her immediate neighborhood. Both Kachelskl and Larry were issued tickets which were later dismissed. Being on the list made Kachelskl feel “attacked, violated, freaked out, creeped out,” she testified.

On Wednesday, Ratkowksi is expected to continue giving testimony. Roy, who is also accused of violating the DPPA by releasing unredacted open records in early 2021, will also take the stand. Former police chief hief Barry Weber, whose whereabouts were unknown on Monday, will not be asked to testify. Nor will former Alderman Matthew Stippich, who was part of the ad hoc committee and may have also been a target of  the local police department’s intelligence operation.


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.